The senior class couldn’t have scripted a better way to close out its career at Raymond James Stadium.
From the opening seconds the Bulls seized control of the contest and never relented during a 55-17 thrashing of Louisville.
“I felt pretty good knowing this was my last game at the Ray Jay, in college,” cornerback Mike Jenkins, one of 15 seniors, said. “Hopefully I can pursue my career in the NFL and come back here one day.”
The win was so impressive it boosted USF back into the Bowl Championship Series standings at No. 23 entering the final week of the season.
For the second consecutive week, USF’s (8-3, 3-3) opponent fumbled the opening kickoff, and the Bulls capitalized immediately as Nate Allen recorded the fastest touchdown in school history, returning the ball three yards for the score just eight seconds into the game.
Allen’s score set the tone for the game as Louisville (5-6, 2-4) failed to earn the win necessary to become bowl-eligible.
“Obviously we got off to a bad start and we just couldn’t recover. We kind of got into a tailspin and again we were trying to battle back,” Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe said. “They beat the heck out of us tonight.”
Once the Cardinals’ usually potent offensive attack was on the field, they were unable to get anything going against the ball-hawking defense led by senior cornerbacks Jenkins and Trae Williams.
USF forced seven turnovers, the most since defeating West Virginia in its fourth game of the season, and set a team record with its 37th forced turnover.
“We had some fumbles, big hits and interceptions. That was really big for us,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “We won in all three phases – special teams, offense and defense – we had the same intensity as we did during our 6-0 start.”
While Louisville has suffered through a disappointing season, its first five losses were by a combined 29 points. The 38-point differential was the largest margin of victory for an opponent since the team fell 45-14 to the Bulls two seasons ago.
“It was so important then because they were ranked (No. 9) and it’s important now because last year they put it on us at their place,” said wide receiver Amarri Jackson, who rushed for two scores and threw for another against Louisville in 2005.
“This one meant a lot to us. Just getting back at those guys (after a 31-8 loss last year), they’re one of those teams that seem like a rival. They are going to come back strong next year. I didn’t even play and I was nervous.”
Jackson sat out for the third time in a row after suffering a bruised bone in his knee. The senior hopes to play next week at Pittsburgh or during a bowl game in the upcoming weeks.
Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm, likely a first-round selection in the upcoming NFL draft, was picked off by both Jenkins and Williams among his season-high three interceptions Saturday.
Williams recorded the 15th interception of his career, moving him three behind J.R. Reed for the career record, and returned it 64 yards for his second score of the season.
“It feels great, there’s a lot of different emotions, I know for me and the other seniors, but it feels great to win my last home game,” Williams said. “It’s satisfying that (Jenkins and I) had the interceptions and were able to do what we did.”
The victory was bittersweet for the Bulls, as the Cardinals were without star defensive lineman Deantwan (Peanut) Whitehead, who saw his career come to an end last week against West Virginia because of a spinal condition.
Whitehead was a Sporting News Freshman All-American last season and was the toughest assignment for the Bulls.
“When I heard the news, I started praying for him. He’s one of my favorite players on Louisville and he has great character,” offensive tackle Walt Walker said. “He played a great game against me last year and I was sad that I couldn’t go up against him (Saturday).”
Without Whitehead anchoring the defensive line, the Bulls’ rushing offense thrived. For the second consecutive week, running back Mike Ford was the primary back; he ran for over 100 yards and scored twice.
“We always dedicate it to the seniors because we knew if it was us we would want it to be like this too,” Ford said. “I think this is the best way they could go out.”
Ford finished with 140 yards rushing, including 66 on his first two attempts. Quarterback Matt Grothe added 67 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
The duo helped USF to 41 first-half points, just one point less than the school record set against Liberty in 2001.
While the game may have been their last home game, many of the teams’ seniors are aiming to comeback to Raymond James Stadium in the upcoming years.
“It’s our last time playing here for a lot of guys – well, at least as a Bull,” Williams said. “For it to go like this, where we dominated offense, defense and special teams, is just a special way to do it.”